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Weekend Reading: Who speaks for the public interest in higher education?

  • 11 November 2023
  • By Martin Williams
  • This Saturday blog was kindly authored by Martin Williams, Chair of the University of Cumbria.

There is no shortage of commentators on higher education. Academics and administrators, students and parents, politicians and union leaders, regulators and employers, all have points of view that they want to share.     

With so many voices already speaking, hearts might sink at the idea of yet another one.  Nevertheless, the list above leaves out the group who are legally responsible for the higher education institutions that make up the sector. That means their Chairs and boards, who annually sign off the accounts, assert that the institution remains a going concern, and approve all significant investment and policy decisions. 

Put like that it seems obvious that this group of people have a legitimate interest in higher education policy. But I would go further and assert that, in two important respects, they have a distinctive perspective to offer. 

First, Chairs and Board members are “well-informed outsiders”.  We know our own institution, and we all have some general interest in higher education, or we would not be around the table. But most of us have also spent successful professional careers elsewhere – in companies large and small, professional services, government, public administration, the voluntary sector. Hence, while our experiences vary greatly, we basically have an outsider’s perspectives. That gives us a certain objectivity, that others may lack. For example, if questions about appropriate regulation come up, around our board tables will be people who have experienced or exercised regulatory powers in a very wide range of fields. If they suggest that a regulatory regime is working sub-optimally, it comes from personal knowledge of different regimes, that they believe work better. They know whereof they speak, and their views will be worth hearing. 

Our second distinctive perspective comes because most of our institutions have charitable status, and we are therefore charity trustees. That makes us responsible not just for the financial viability of our institutions, but for ensuring that they fulfil the purposes for which they were created. All of them receive benefits from their charitable status. In return, they should be providing public benefit, and it is for us to confirm that this is happening. We have no personal stakes in the system – we are not employed by our institutions, and almost none of us receive any payment. We owe nothing to any government or agent of government.  Others can speak for taxpayers, students, employers, staff, the electorate, the scientific community, the creative industries, and so forth. But if any group could be said to be responsible for “the public interest” in the round, taking into account the different interests of all the stakeholders, it is us.

So, having asserted a right to speak, what do I have to say? 

Like most Chairs I don’t spend much time bothering about national policy; we get on with overseeing our institutions. For Cumbria, that means thinking about our plans, with Imperial, for a new medical school in Carlisle; providing high-level engineering skills and applied research to support BAE’s growth in Barrow; strengthening our national paramedic apprenticeship provision and delivering Forestry Commission apprenticeships in Ambleside; establishing an Initial Teacher Training collaboration with Warwick. These are our choices as an autonomous institution. 

However, obviously national policy does affect us, and at present that is particularly through the funding arrangements for teaching UK undergraduate students. For Cumbria, as for many other universities, this is our principal activity. Since 2012, most of the funding for this has come from student fees. Government regulates these, setting the maximum sum we can charge and providing fee loans to students. That amount has now stayed static over several years, while inflation has reached double figures. Hence, all our costs are rising fast, and our largest single source of income is constrained by law.    

Plenty of organisations, public and private, are in rather similar positions, and it is not for me to say what funding the government, taxpayers, employers or students should be contributing to higher education. What is, however, clear is that the funding settlement introduced in 2012 is buckling. The assumption then was that, by and large, the fee cap would keep some sort of lagging pace with inflation, thereby providing a framework of relative stability within which institutions would compete with each other (confession: I was a senior civil servant working on higher education in 2012). That assumption has proved unsustainable. 

As Boards, we must take the necessary decisions to keep our institutions in reasonable financial health, and handle the consequences – for our courses, our students, our staff. If this reduces the public benefits that we provide, so be it. I believe that benefits will still remain. But two points deserve to be made.

First, any regulatory funding system contains incentives and disincentives, which shape an institution’s decisions. At present, disincentives are weighing increasingly on the teaching of UK undergraduates, and there is no sign of this changing. I do question whether this is in the public interest.

Second, if the politicians, faced with difficult funding choices, could nevertheless set out a realistic long term picture of the resources they think can be offered for teaching undergraduates, then institutions like mine will seek to respond imaginatively. But the more that my Board and I have to make guesses, the more we may lean towards risk aversion, which may not be in the public interest. And at present there is political silence.

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  1. Albert Wright says:

    A very practical, down to earth and completely understandable article, concluding that taking on more undergraduates is not a good idea, given current circumstances.

    I get the impression that taking in more post graduates might be a possibility and that it is unlikely that there is any cross subsidising of research costs from undergraduate funds.

    In a normal business situation in a similar position, the next question might be “How can we reduce costs and / or improve productivity?” This would lead on to “what could we do differently because more of the same is not an option?

    I would be interested in what the answer would be for Cumbria? Might it include cutting certain courses where student numbers are small? Concentrating on courses with lower delivery costs. Expanding / introducing new products ( a range of Apprenticeships ?) Increasing foundation students? Reducing expensive staff costs by offering early retirements etc

    I can see you are doing new things but how do they impact your financial position. Would it be more prudent to delay some of these initiatives if the business case for doing them has changed for the worse through cost inflation?

  2. Martin Williams says:

    Thanks for the comment, Albert. All the actions you mention are things that the University of Cumbria has done before, and – if we had to – we could and would consider doing them again. As I say in the blog, any Board has to take the decisions necessary to keep its institution in reasonable financial health. But I think the extra dimension here is that we (most universities) are charities, and the funding we get is intended to produce public benefit. If the current drivers in the system are pushing us to take actions that reduce the public benefits we provide, then that bothers me a bit as a Trustee, and I think deserves a bit of airing in public. Hence the blog!

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